Passing exams and changing the rules

All students should read Bertell Ollman's How to take an exam and remake the world (Black Rose Books), says Benjamin Edgar Klein

I first opened this book last summer term. Faced with the daunting prospect of writing about 15,000 words and taking a seemingly endless stream of exams, I found Bertell Ollman not only provided some much-needed distraction from the need to finally get my nose down to the grindstone, but also laid some of my exam-related fears and anxieties to rest.

The book does what is says on the tin, in that the reader receives tips on how to pass exams and prepare for them properly, and is simultaneously guided through a witty, insightful and scornfully critical tour of the academic world and the system of capitalist commodity production that props it up. All this is premised on a "deal" that Ollman cuts with the reader from the outset of this short yet profound little masterpiece.

As he himself puts it, "What I really would like to do is to tell you about capitalism, the system by which we produce and distribute the wealth of our society, but I suspect that most of you couldn't care less about what I have to say on this topic. Yet you'd probably like to hear my exam advice. So let's make a deal. That's the catch." The deal is that the reader has to put up with the politics in exchange for getting practical advice.

This implicit recognition of depoliticisation on modern campuses, and the fact that the overwhelming majority of students see 'education' as nothing more than merely repeating sound bites, phrases and pseudo-theories that they have rote-learnt, forms the central tenet of Ollman's book. He looks to challenge this mentality by analysing examinations in the context of wider society and social developments. No mean feat, of course.

Yet Ollman is more than up to the challenge - not merely through his piercing humour and irony, but also through his ability to quote bourgeois publications, government statistics and establishment politicians in order to expose their nonsensical theories and paradigms, as they hypocritically attempt to justify the anti-human capitalist status quo.

Ollman is particularly didactic - a revolutionary pedagogue who uses anecdotes, games, cartoons and, above all, jokes to great effect in promoting critical faculties amongst his 'students'. This inspires us, the reader, to think imaginatively and transcendentally, and not to merely accept every 'fact' and statistic presented on courses at face value.

In Ollman's view, much of the palpable nonsense taught in schools and universities goes undetected by the majority of students - and also passes by the majority of society when they watch the news or read the papers. To underline this, he tells of how he would assign first-year students highly illogical tasks, which for the most part they would subserviently carry out - at least until he pointed out that what they were doing was absurd. So, freshers, be warned: there may be the odd Ollman or two lurking within the depths of the stultifying British academic system. That is, if your luck is in, of course!

From this basis, Ollman gradually builds up a critical analysis of the synthetic division of education into separate and often competing academic disciplines as a necessary precondition for the creation of a malleable and 'educated' labour force fit for the needs of capital. The book is beautifully structured, forcing the reader to repeatedly switch between the 'micro' level of exams and their numerous shortcomings and flaws, and the 'macro' level of wider capitalist society of which students are a part. On a much more practical level, it also prevents the reader merely seeking exam advice from skipping the politics! It seems for Ollman a deal really is a deal.

On the way, there are short breaks for little mini-games such as Mind Gulag (a test of just how your ideas are being enslaved by the myths of capitalist ideology) and, a particular favourite of mine, Bullshit Bingo, which has the potential to brighten up the ramblings of postmodernist lecturers and other mouthpieces of ruling class ideology. Essentially, it revolves around making a bingo grid - not of numbers, but of various vacuous platitudes such as 'free trade', 'consumer sovereignty' or 'democratic capitalism'. The otherwise bored student must listen with pricked ears to be the first to cross them out when they are mentioned and then shout 'Bullshit!' instead of 'Line!' or 'House!'

Apparently, in America this game has increased class attendance figures, so if you feel subjected to mental degradation, get some friends together and it's 'Eyes down, look in!' Why not play Bullshit Bingo while listening to Prime minister's question time - if nothing else, it may keep your granny entertained!

As the designer of Class Struggle, the extremely successful Marxist parody of the board game Monopoly, Ollman is at pains to stress that capitalism, on account of its inherent systemic need to self-expand, is a rigged game. Addressing the reader, he says, "You never had a fair, let alone equal, chance, and you won't. 'Equality of opportunity' is only a designer's label on the emperor's new clothes." Through the exposition and explanation of this "dirty little secret" of capitalism, it is hoped that young people will channel the powerlessness and isolation that they feel in the dehumanising world of education into a healthy and reasoned desire to 'change the rules' of life to make it, as any good game should be, fair and enjoyable.

Written neither in a patronising nor circumlocutory manner, this book patiently exposes how "merciless criticism of everything existing" - to use the words of Charlie Marx - is the only way to understand our position in society and positively fight against that injustice that we invariably come across.

Ollman skilfully combines diverse media and cogent argumentation to create an accessible and laugh-a-minute popular exposition of Marxism and an evocative description of the evils of capitalist life - not in a moralising, 'Isn't the world shit?' fashion, but dialectically: grasping the essence of education under modern capitalism as something which has evolved over time and is constantly changing, just like capitalism itself. In spite of the profound content it reads very easily and will doubtless bring a smile to both the most revolutionary and conservative of faces.

In the spirit of standardised, target-related bourgeois education that is so effortlessly lampooned, the book culminates in a final examination question to test how closely the reader has followed the 184-page 'lesson'. A successful answer will prove that they have actually gained something from Ollman's analysis and are starting to develop their critical faculties. A wrong answer, however, will mean that the reader must start the book anew. It isn't a particularly long question, though: "How many capitalists does it take to screw in a light bulb?"

I will not reveal the answer, because if you don't know it is probably high time to get hold of this book. Indeed, whatever you think - or may think you think - of capitalism, it is more than worth it. The experience will probably improve your grades too, and if not it will at least, as in my own case, put the degrading experience of exam stress into a social context as a means of disciplining young people for tomorrow's office-slavery. Surely education ought to mean more than this?

After all, as the Abbie Hoffman quote wonderfully puts it in the book's 'last word', "Leave a mark on history. There may be no money in it, but it's more exciting than studying accounting." This book is certainly more interesting than most of the stuff you will read during the course of your studies - add it to your list of compulsory reading this year.